On the Origin of Scientists: Sara Harris teaches climate change differently

“I would love it if everyone out there who is voting had some background in evaluating evidence,” said Dr. Sara Harris, professor of teaching at UBC, paleo-oceanographer and co-author of Understanding Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Practice.

“I would like to provide people — who are coming from all different backgrounds and going to all kinds of places — with an experience where they have some practice working with basic data about climate science and climate change,” she said.

Harris has a vision for her work — she wants to participate in the world in a way that is sustainable and humane. In her day-to-day work, she proves that she is rigorously committed to this goal. Rather than simply teaching climate science as she sees fit, Harris studies how people learn about climate science, and then implements these techniques in her classroom.

Researching how people learn is how Harris came to be such a strong proponent of teaching how to evaluate evidence rather than teaching the evidence itself.

“It turns out that showing people data in that kind of setting, just telling people that they’re wrong, is not helpful.”

Instead, people should be taught how to let evidence influence the decisions they make. “We’re all humans — it’s not always that evidence trumps other reasons to make a decision. But it is possible to use evidence to inform decisions,” said Harris.

To ensure that her teaching is not isolated to those of us privileged to be at this university, Harris organizes teams of UBC environmental science students to join with community partners through the Centre for Community Engaged Learning. Since 2013, she has also taught a free, open online course on edX (and previously on Coursera), the first open-access climate change course of its kind.

Harris’ commitment to education and community engagement was a path she chose over the that of basic research after her doctoral degree. After finishing her PhD at Oregon State, she had the choice of going to France to study marine sediments. She decided instead to teach with the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There, as chief scientist, she took students out to sea for six weeks at a time, teaching sailing, navigation and methodologies for collecting oceanographic data.

After seven years of teaching and sailing — which took her from Woods Hole to the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Tahiti and Hawaii — Harris felt ready to move on. Her interest in education was solidified at Woods Hole, so she was excited to join an education-focused tenure-track job at UBC. In 2005, during Harris' very first term teaching at UBC, she was in the audience as Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman spoke on his initiative to study how students learn science. Wieman’s talk set the tone for Harris' work in the years to follow.

Young scientists, take heart. Retrospectively, it can seem that Harris deliberately planned to end up doing the work she is doing, but she sees it differently.

“I started as a Russian major in college. And then on a fluke, I took a structural geology class which I was very unqualified to take, and crammed a geology major into my last year,” said Harris. “It’s very hard to look ahead at your own career. There’s no way that I could have foreseen being here, doing what I’m doing.”

Thankfully, there is no need for a grand plan in order to have a career as successful, interesting and community-oriented as Harris'.